Writing en Plein Air

Painters take easels, paints, brushes, and canvases outside to paint en plein air to capture the light and beauty of the natural world; why not writers?

When I take my journal outside (certainly not during black fly season or when mosquitoes are everywhere here in Maine) whether I’m brainstorming ideas, drafting scenes, or writing poems, I find my plein air writing has, for lack of better word, an “airy” quality to it. I’m more open to experimentation. There are no boundaries.

Last fall, I wanted to share this experience when I worked with a group of young writers at the Cathance River Ecology Center to write nature-inspired poetry in my two-hour workshop: Listen, Look, Draw, and Write: Writing Poetry about Nature. It went like this:

Listen: We began inside the nature center. I shared some of my poems and we talked about some of the poetic techniques I used to write them.

Look: Next, with sketchbooks and pencils in hand, we went outside, ready to explore.

Draw: Whenever something “called” to us from the natural world–it was different for everyone: a rotting tree stump, a gurgling brook, lichen on stone, a woodpecker, tall grasses–we stopped, quickly capturing images and words on the pages of our nature journals. We did this several times in different settings.

Write: An hour later, we brought our words and images back inside to help us write and illustrate our poems.

What about you? Do you ever write outside? If you work with children, have you ever taken them outside with notebooks? Were you surprised at the results?


Pride Month and a Dedication

After my son Adam came out in the early 2000s, I did what any children’s book-loving mom would do: I pulled some “gayYA” books off my shelf. I was a student then in Vermont College’s Writing for Children and Young Adults MFA Program where, besides writing, we were required to read tons of books.

I’d collected some of my favorites—The Geography Club, Brent Hartinger; Boy Meets Boy, David Levithan; Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, Benjamin Alire Sáenz; Rainbow Boys, Alex Sánchez—and gave them to Adam.

Weeks later Adam commented that he’d really liked all the books but asked, “Why do all the books have to be about being gay? Why can’t there be a character in a book who just happens to be gay?”

At the time (early 2000s) I was so excited that YA books with gay characters even existed—baby boomers did not grow up with this literature—that Adam’s comment really moved me.

In TILLIE HEART AND SOUL, Uncle Fred just happens to be gay. I didn’t set out to write a book with a gay character as a result of Adam’s comment. I didn’t say, Gee, I’d better put a character in my WIP who just happens to be gay for Adam.

When Uncle Fred first appeared on the page, I realized he was gay. He was also an artist, a stickler for Tillie’s teeth-brushing routine, an inventive cook, and president of the condo association.

As an author, you can’t make your characters be or do what you want them to. (Believe me, I’ve tried!) Fictional characters are who they are, they exist on their own, products of your imagination with a little magic dust thrown in.

But one’s life experiences (including conversations with a son) feed the creative process and the imagination.

TILLIE HEART AND SOUL’S dedication page reads: To Adam.